Last fall I posted a picture on Facebook of Dale and me with three of our grandchildren at Cherry Crest Adventure Farm in Lancaster County. The toddler was in a stroller. Dana (the toddler’s mom) commented, “My baby is not strapped! Caught you!” No, I had not belted Selena into the stroller. She was in and out of the thing all day, and I didn’t think it was necessary to strap her in every single time we moved a few yards from one farm attraction to another. Dana’s comment made me feel a little guilty, but also a little defensive.
What person my age hasn’t said multiple times, “It’s a wonder we survived,” as we observe and enforce all the safety precautions that are intended to protect our children and grandchildren from harm. In my childhood, there weren’t any seat belts or car seats, bike helmets and knee/elbow pads, or playground equipment standards. Even when my own children were young, the car seats we used weren’t that good and I would often hold (and even nurse) my baby on my lap – in the passenger seat, of course.
When I was a child growing up in the Rhodesias (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), I did many things that today would likely be considered dangerous. All of us missionary kids loved to climb and play on the rocks at Matopo Mission. I can picture spots among the rocks behind the main mission house at Matopo that required a fair amount of scrambling to reach but were challenges we just had to tackle. I imagine we often climbed barefoot, and I’m sure there were skinned knees and stubbed toes. I rode my bicycle by myself around the mission stations, coming and going from our house pretty much at will. My brother and I played in the dirt, building roads and towns for his toy cars. We sat on the ground and moved the dirt with our hands–dirt where people walked in bare feet and where who knows what animal or insect had been. When Rich was still sucking his two middle fingers (which he did till he was past four), he would periodically stop his play and put his fingers in his mouth – no hand-washing first. It bothered my mother, and I’m sure he ingested all kinds of germs, but he didn’t get sick.
We also played in the river. I vaguely remember a caretaker (not my mother) who would go with us sometimes, but I’m pretty sure I went by myself too. The river was some distance from our house, so no one could watch out the window or from the back porch to make sure I was okay. It wasn’t the Susquehanna River, and depending on the season, the river sometimes wasn’t much more than a trickle, but it was a body of water nonetheless where I played without adult supervision. I loved climbing trees, going up as high as the branches would allow. We also had rope swings hung from high horizontal tree branches – two ropes connected to a board about five inches wide for the seat. I would swing as high as I could (sometimes at the highest point, the ropes were close to being parallel with the ground), or I would sit on the seat and twist the ropes as tightly as possible and then twirl rapidly as the ropes unwound, making me so dizzy I couldn’t walk! Again, all this was without adult supervision.
I was much more vigilant with my own kids, but permitted things I’m not sure I would be comfortable with today. Some years, they walked to or from school (some years they rode the bus), and one year Dana and her friends roller-skated to school with no helmets, elbow pads or knee pads until their principal decided he didn’t like them bringing their skates into the building. Dana and Derek and their friends on our block rode their “Big Wheels” down the sidewalk hill in front of our house, with the strong possibility they could have missed the turn at the bottom and gone right out into the street in front of a car. I did worry about abduction, so when they were playing outside or with friends, I always tried to make sure I knew where they were and who they were with. And in hindsight, I actually wish I had been more vigilant about certain things.
Now when we take care of our grandchildren, we are very careful – partly because we would feel absolutely horrible if anything happened to them while we’re responsible for them, but also because we are so much more aware of all the potential dangers that we didn’t even think or know about when we were growing up. Raising children these days can be a scary proposition. Some of the dangers are sinister and horrific – like school shootings, drugs, sexual predators, child abductions, internet-based crimes, fears of being accused of child abuse or neglect, or freak accidents. The media often portray the world as a dangerous place, with potential disaster for children lurking around every corner. Some parental (and grandparental) vigilance and attention also comes from the pressure to measure up to other people’s expectations and to make sure we are actively and constantly giving our children opportunities to learn and experience new things, so we won’t be accused of being lazy, neglectful and unengaged and so they will have as many advantages as the next kid and won’t be deprived or lag behind their peers.
What sparked these musings was an article I came across from The Atlantic, “The Overprotected Kid.” The article describes a new kind of playground that encourages and allows free, imaginative and unsupervised play, unlike what has become the norm for so many families. The author, Hanna Rosen, notes that at one point, when her daughter was about 10, “my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.” It’s a lengthy article but well worth the read.
Then there was also the recent incident of the mother who was arrested and jailed because she allowed her nine-year-old daughter to play in the park alone for three days while she was at work. The daughter had a cell phone so she could call her mother in case of an emergency. The mother worked at McDonald’s and couldn’t afford child care, but she didn’t want her daughter to sit inside all alone for hours all summer when she could be outside playing. Whatever else this story illustrates, it surely points out that for all our concern with protecting our children from dangers real or imagined, we don’t do very well at protecting ALL children: there are still far too many children in the U.S. who don’t have access to good quality child care, live in poverty (in fact, the child poverty rate in Pennsylvania increased three percent from 2012 to 2013, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation), live in neighborhoods without adequately-funded and well-run schools, are in danger of being the victims of gun and other kinds of violence, or don’t have parents or other caregivers with the time, skills, resources or perhaps even the motivation to pay attention to their children’s most basic physical, social and emotional needs.
Do we overprotect our kids? Clearly, it seems to depend on whose kids we’re talking about. Perhaps a better question is to what extent in our efforts to protect our own kids, we are protecting ALL kids. Even as we must acknowledge that life is not risk-free and it is unrealistic and potentially crazy-making to think we can prevent our own children from ever being harmed, there’s nothing wrong with doing our absolute best to protect them. At the same time, let’s not forget the children who also need people to protect them and to advocate on their behalf when and where we can.
Oh, and I don’t feel all that guilty about not belting Selena in her stroller. We had eyes on her the whole time!